When Taylor Swift began what has felt like a neverending campaign for her first pop album 1989 in August 2014, the song she chose to kick off her publicity tour was one of the weakest on the album. 1989 is a good pop album, one with ebbs and flows that challenged even the best albums of 2014. But "Shake it Off" is nowhere near its best song. I wouldn't even place it in the top five.
The one virtue of "Shake It Off" is that it's unbelievably catchy. But every virtue has a vice. And the vice of "Shake it Off" is that, well, it's annoying. With its chanting and its incessant repetition, what starts off as an upbeat jam quickly becomes tiresome.
But it's the first song Swift put out for a reason. She needed a counter-attack.
"Shake it Off" begins with an acknowledgement. I get it, Taylor Swift seems to be saying, I get that you all think I'm annoying and flighty and immature. She lists the complaints held up against her—each more innocuous than the last. She accepts the frustrations hurled at her and then she shakes them off, which is about as close as a good girl like Taylor Swift can come to telling us that she just doesn't fucking care.
Thirteen months later, Swift is back in the same stew of controversy she referenced when she announced this album. Sure she's making headlines every day, and performing in front of sold-out arenas, but just like on her last tour and the tour before that one, she's starting to grate on the general public. Like a tag in your new shirt or a gnat in your face, Taylor Swift has become annoying again. But why does this happen? And how?
There's a careful balance to being a celebrity that has to be maintained. All celebrities must swim through a sea of controversy—be it for severe racial appropriation or wearing a dress someone doesn't like. To live in the public eye is to be loathed by someone, somewhere. Even minor celebrities get hate mail and online abuse. But there's a particular version of hate reserved for celebrities who annoy us.
That's different, for most of the general public, from a celebrity we unanimously decide not to like for a certain period of time (or, in extreme cases, forever): Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber in 2012, Chris Brown after Rihanna, Bill Cosby from now on. These are people who did something specific, something egregious enough for us to push them away. They crashed a car into a tree. They were abusive. They were rapists. They were ignorant and dumb. And so, as a society, we can push them out of our way and dismiss them.
Taylor Swift isn't that kind of celebrity, and she's very, very careful not to be. She has moments when she is easy to hate—when she assumed Nicki Minaj's critique of music industry racism is about her, or when she filmed a music video in Africa without casting a single black person, to name a few. But she recovers from those incidents with whatever kind of PR campaign she already had carefully planned. In the case of the Minaj feud, she made a public statement of love, and then performed with Minaj at the MTV VMAs. Before the video for "Wildest Dreams" aired, it already had a message within it saying that the profits would be donated to support wildlife conservation.
Instead of blatantly offending us, giving us something to turn against her and hold it there, Taylor Swift (smartly) only gives her haters one hundred frustrations that, like a coworker sitting next to you popping his gum, only become more and more annoying with each passing moment.
One of the realities that is so frustrating about popular music and the way it works is that it is almost impossible to tell which annoying qualities of a celebrity are intentional, and which are accidents. In which moments does Taylor Swift act in a frustrating way because our attention, our buzz, is what makes her those millions of dollars and sells her concert tickets? And in which moments is she just, well, wrong?
Taylor Swift is the only trending topic that never seems to budge. Almost every morning, her name lights up Facebook and Google Trends. She is unabashedly and almost constantly in the news. While she's on tour, she does this by bringing on "surprise" guests to play one of their songs with her in front of the audience. This tour alone has featured Lorde, Alanis Morissette, Justin Timberlake, Nick Jonas, Fetty Wap, and The Weeknd. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
Lauren Emberson, a psychology graduate student who studied annoyance, told NPR in 2011 that "our brains are always predicting what's going to happen next, based on our current state of knowledge—this is how we learn about the world, but it also reflects how we are in the world. When something is unexpected, it draws our attention in, our brains tune into it because we're this information-seeking, prediction-loving cognitive system—this is the idea."
That unexpected that Emberson talks about, though, doesn't mean that we are totally blindsided by this annoying behavior. Instead she's referring to a concept popularized by science writers Joe Palca and Flora Lichtmanin in their book Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us. Palca and Lichtmanin define the unexpected as something that annoys us without an expected end state.
They posit that we can, as humans, tolerate almost anything, no matter how painful or frustrating, if we know when it will end. Let's take as an example something else that's annoying, like that coworker who pops his gum at his desk. Is this inconsiderate? Sure. But it's not like your coworker is emotionally harassing members of the staff. He isn't a terrible person. But every three or eight or who knows how many minutes, you hear that sound: the snap of the bubble. And maybe at first this is something that you as a human can tolerate. You don't say anything. The thing that bugs us is tolerable in moderation. What's not tolerable is the actual experience of being bugged, which is now happening over and over and over again, and who knows when it will end!
Very few things that Taylor Swift does or says are intolerable, because she does everything with a veneer of happiness, a blatant selling of contentment. She is a tall, thin, beautiful white woman whose interests and desires fit perfectly into the sexism and racism that the American music industry has been selling since the beginning of time. This isn't her fault, per se, but it certainly works to her benefit. Because she fits the status quo, she is rarely the subject of hate.
But like your imaginary co-worker snapping his gum, she's just always doing something. She has another guest on her tour, and there's a headline. She gives a fan some money, and there's another headline. She performs at the VMAs. She stalks her fans on Tumblr. The things that make Taylor Swift an absolutely incredible pop star for her super-fans (her availability and visibility), are exactly what grates on people who don't love her.
Think about the promotion for the "Bad Blood" video earlier this year. Every day there was another poster for another celebrity who would make an appearance. Every day we were reminded that something was coming and it was important and Taylor Swift wanted us to see it. Did that hype work? Absolutely it did. "Bad Blood" was streamed so much that it broke a Vevo record, but that doesn't mean it can't be annoying.
At this point, it feels like the 1989 tour and all of its accompanying press might not ever end. In chemistry, the moment when a substance can no longer absorb another substance is called its saturation point—like a sponge filled with water that can no longer do its job, so the steady stream of Taylor Swift coverage has filled up some people.
Media coverage is a tricky thing. Whether or not a celebrity is panned or praised in the media has an almost direct correlation with how much access that celebrity gives to the press. (The only true exception to this rule is Beyoncé Knowles, who has exceeded this expectation.)
If a reporter interviews a celebrity for a story, or—even better—profiles them, there is the expectation that because they have been granted an interview over other outlets, their coverage of said celebrity will at least lean toward positive. The unwritten rule here is that if a reporter pans a celebrity who agreed to talk to their publication, it's very likely that they will never talk to that celebrity (and possibly anyone associated with them) ever again. By granting a ton of interviews and press, then, Swift has almost guaranteed that she'll be portrayed in a positive light.
This isn't a bad thing by any means. It's part of her job. And Taylor Swift, no matter what kind of criticisms we have to hurl at her, is really damn good at her job. She has grown up in the spotlight and managed to keep her sanity. She started off writing her own songs at a little Nashville café and grew her influence and power into one of the biggest brands in the world.
Joe Palca, who co-wrote the book Annoying, told NPR that the only way to get over an annoyance is to "tell yourself that that mosquito is just a part of the life flow of the world and I shouldn't be mad," he says. "It's just trying to do what it was genetically programmed to do."
In some ways, this is definitely true of Swift. She is genetically programmed to be a pop star. A lot of people can write music, and many of them can perform, but very few people can be giant pop stars. Taylor Swift is one of them.
And that's where the greater problem with Taylor Swift, the more uncomfortable conversation, begins to really peek through. "Tell yourself that that mosquito is just part of the life flow of the world," Palca said. But that life flow, the structures of our society, aren't fair. The life flow that Taylor Swift exists in isn't the same one that Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé (or even Katy Perry) exist in.
If privilege is getting to play the game of life without any penalties, Taylor Swift is playing life on easy mode, and she has been since birth. She was born into a social class that set her up for success immediately, and gave her the time and money to pursue her dreams at 15 years old. She is thin in a society that tells women to be that. She isn't curvy in a society that penalizes women for appearing too sexy. She is (as far as we know) heterosexual in a society where that is the default. And she is white.
These are not qualities that Taylor Swift has any ability to change, and most of them are a product of her birth. They are not her fault. But it is so easy to look at this tall, beautiful, white woman making millions of dollars and see reflected in her success the reminder of everything about society that is unfair and bullshit.
In an interview with the New York Times, Miley Cyrus said something about the beef between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift earlier in the summer. She said: "What I read sounded very Nicki Minaj, which, if you know Nicki Minaj is not too kind. It’s not very polite. I think there’s a way you speak to people with openness and love. You don’t have to start this pop star against pop star war."
There's this constant behavior enforcement in Hollywood of standards that are decided by someone who doesn't understand the culture they are trying to control. What Cyrus is essentially saying in this quote is that Nicki Minaj is too raw, that she doesn't tone down her critique into a proper vocal range. And of course she doesn't. Why should she have to? The only thing that tells Minaj to change her behavior is a cultural standard of whiteness that she's not even a part of.
In a brilliant article about Taylor Swift's complicated relationship with black culture published in Blavity, Christine Cauthen writes:
"Blackness is not a costume or a prop. It is not an elixir for lameness that white people can take in doses when they want to have fun. Being black has real consequences and comes with challenging lived experiences. So, if a person like Swift wants to interact with it, she better respect and try to understand it, instead of treating the music and culture like a play thing."
Cauthen is referring here to Swift's obsession with music that is culturally black—specifically Fetty Wap's "Trap Queen." But her point transcends that specific example. In Taylor Swift, we see exactly how white popularity supersedes and uses black popularity. It's impossible to look at Taylor Swift in all of her shiny glory without seeing the disparity between the way she's written about and the way Minaj is written about.
Taylor Swift certainly isn't the reason that racism in music exists, or that black women are so poorly represented in the Top 40 despite their massive impact on society, but she's certainly a reminder that that racism is real. When Taylor Swift rose from the ground at the VMAs we were expected to heave a sigh of relief. The "feud" between Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift had come to this beautiful, ratings-boosting performance, hadn't it? But behind that relief was the ticking frustration that nothing, certainly not the real problems of racism that Minaj had brought up in her tweets, had been fixed at all. Taylor Swift's presence simply allowed us to gloss over Minaj's critique and replace it with a feud that could be solved in a truncated version of "Bad Blood."
Ultimately, there's not one main reason so many people are annoyed with Taylor Swift. The sigh of annoyance that filled the air when she rose from the ground during Nicki Minaj's set to open the VMAs wasn't because she had shown up in that exact moment and done that exact thing.
The reason so many people are annoyed with Taylor Swift is that for the past 12 months, she hasn't shown a single sign of stopping. She is incessant in her successes, and in her fame. It's a praise fest, too, that doesn't show many signs of slowing down. The 1989 tour doesn't end until December 12 in Melbourne, Australia. 1989 will inevitably be nominated for a plethora of Grammy awards, and that show isn't until February 2016. At its minimum run time, this will be a full 18-month press tour of Taylor Swift glory.
Maybe claiming March 2016 as the conclusion of this Taylor Swift extravaganza will make it easier to muscle through all of the coverage that is still sure to come. Or maybe it won't.
If she keeps the pace set by her last five albums, Swift will put out another album in the fall of 2016. For six months, there will be a creeping silence around her aura. What's amazing and almost unimaginable right now is that by then, we'll probably miss her.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.